If you read the title and immediately thought of the New Balance 990, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you. While it is correct that the 990 is New Balance’s most popular sneaker and the ultimate “blend-in” style, and the same can be said about the Nike Air Force 1, they are not really competitors.
The Nike Air Force 1 is a retro basketball shoe that works as both a high, mid, and low-top silhouette. It’s no-frills and traditionally features a full-leather upper. The New Balance 990 is a running shoe that is most commonly seen dressed in nappy suede, only arrives as a low-top (although, could you imagine a high-top 990?), and has a much sleeker profile than the AF1. So, while both shoes are among their respective brands’ most popular, they are not really direct competitors.
Those that wear Air Force 1s don’t necessarily wear 990s and vice versa. So for years, it could be argued that New Balance didn’t have a direct AF1 competitor — until now. Enter the NB550, a basketball shoe from the late-’80s that New Balance pulled out of the archives last year and has (very successfully) re-introduced to the market.
The 550 was first relaunched as part of the brand’s ongoing partnership with Aimé Leon Dore. Teddy Santis’ label has long been one of New Balance’s premier collaborators and, with New York City and — most importantly — basketball heritage, ALD was a perfect choice as partner for the 550’s relaunch. The Aimé Lone Dore co-sign gave the sneaker much-needed contemporary cultural weight. It was a style most New Balance fans, let alone sneakerheads, had never heard of before. Had it been relaunched any other way, it may have failed to pick up as much popularity as it has so far.
But now that the 550 is safely one of New Balance’s most popular new silhouettes, it’s shaping up to be the brand’s first true Air Force 1 competitor. The similarities between both silhouettes make sense considering they come from the same era. The 550 was launched in 1989, while the AF1 first dropped in 1982. The 550’s overall shape is slightly bulkier than the 990 and the sneaker is made predominantly out of leather. Although it first dropped exclusively in low-top format, the 550 was also made available as a mid-top recently, marking yet another similarity to the AF1.
Collaborations and special-edition colorways notwithstanding — the scarcity of which appeals to a wider range of consumers — it’s safe to say that the type of sneakerheads that would wear the Air Force 1 overlaps more closely with those that would wear the 550. So where the 990 may have been an alternative but not a competitor to the AF1, the 550 much more closely fits that mark.
That doesn’t mean people will be jumping off the AF1 bandwagon in droves just yet. Nike’s model has decades of consistent releases, high-profile collaborations, and cultural clout under its belt. The 550 on the other hand was relatively popular in 1985 but disappeared for decades. That mystery definitely makes up part of the silhouette’s allure, which may yet wear off, but it’s hard to say exactly where the 550 would be at, had it been in storefronts for the past 30 years, as the Air Force 1 has.
What’s clear, though, is that New Balance has broken new ground over the past 12 months and can now relatively authentically move in the retro basketball sneaker world — something that was not possible before. This comes at a time when New Balance is also forging new paths on the performance side of the sport via an endorsement with Kawhi Leonard.
If used right — and not run into the ground as so many new silhouettes have been by impatient brands over the years — the New Balance 550 could turn into quite a secret weapon for the Bostonian brand. The 550 has begun to establish itself as a respectable Air Force 1 alternative within the sneaker community. The road ahead is long and only time will tell what the model’s potential really is, but things are looking good.
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